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Cab Calloway's Jitterbug Party

Posted : 3 months ago on 23 May 2019 06:07 (A review of Cab Calloway's Jitterbug Party)

Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party’s is a perfectly serviceable musical short that needed some visual imagination to match the high-octane energy of the music and performers. Cursed with a point-and-shoot style that several early sound musicals are doomed with, Jitterbug Party nearly undermines the swinging good time promised by Calloway and His Cotton Club Orchestra. Leave it to Calloway’s rapid-fire vocal technique and manic movements to keep you engaged. It’s also notable for historical import: a very young Lena Horne appears as a chorus girl during the final scene.

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Beautiful Girls

Posted : 3 months ago on 19 May 2019 09:26 (A review of Beautiful Girls)

At times over fond but rightly critical of the stunted adolescence of these man-babies, Beautiful Girls still gives them too wide a berth for their ruminations on nothing in particular while ignoring the more intriguing female characters that reside on the periphery. Strange that the two most fascinating ones are a wisecracking Rosie O’Donnell and Natalie Portman doing one of her neighborhood Lolitas. (She had a few of these roles in the beginning of her career, most evidently in Leon: The Professional.) Makes you wonder about what exactly these men expect and where they’ve placed their sexual hang-ups.


Then again, one of the schlubbiest is obsessed with lingerie models, Penthouse playmates, and Playboy bunnies, so you know, I think we can guess what type of males we’re dealing with here. It’s great to watch O’Donnell hold up one of those magazines and give them a verbal lashing about the unrealistic expectations of womanhood and its performative aspects to these men. Of course, they’re too myopic to understand what she’s saying. Not to mention the entire scene feels like a screenwriter’s conceit and less like a realistic moment no matter how much gusto O’Donnell provides in dishing out this rapid-fire monologue.


Much of Beautiful Girls is like that – men stuck in their high school glory days unable to see past their navel, unsure about this whole commitment thing, and strangely overconfident about what they’re bringing to the table. Matt Dillon’s character peaked in high school and he strings along his girlfriend (Mira Sorvino, underused and deserving better much like her character) while carrying on an affair with his high school girlfriend (Lauren Holly, her part mainly consists of walking into a scene and projecting an icy bitchiness to everyone in the room). Michael Rappaport’s creepily obsessed with his ex-girlfriend (Martha Plimpton), and unable to separate his unbelievable expectations of womanhood from his addiction to pornography and scantily clad models.


The movie is really about O’Donnell’s monologue, how these men need to let go of their strange ideals and hang-ups and look at the actual people around them for love, commitment, and growth. Elle MacPherson will always be a fantasy object to them, but Mira Sorvino’s harried girlfriend has tremendous reservoirs of love to give and no one willing to take it. Frankly, these women deserve much better.


Yet when Beautiful Girls zeros in on Timothy Hutton’s character, I enjoyed it much more. He’s returned home to try and sort things out while attending his high school reunion. He made it out of the small town and engages in an odd relationship with Portman’s character. They seem to attract each other as blank slates they can project their dreams and realities upon, canvases they can project innocence or maturity that may or may not be there.


Hutton’s performance is one of the best in the film as he realizes these guys are stuck in a rut, and he doesn’t want to replicate this within his own life. He’s going to give that whole commitment thing a shot with the beautiful girl he left behind in New York. Bravo, you’ve managed to enter your thirties with the same uncertainty as the rest of us.


Leave it up to this film’s stellar ensemble to paper over the thinness of the premise and the occasionally bits of dialog that feel more “written” than “spoken.” Hey, they also managed to squeeze in a semi-drunken singalong to “Sweet Caroline,” and that’s a charming bit that feels truthful. Friend groups do get weirdly obsessed with bits of pop culture that become some kind of shared experience or shorthand with each other. Beautiful Girls is mildly enjoyable, but I’ll be happy if we can keep the films about wheel spinning white dudes to a minimum from here on out.  

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Posted : 3 months ago on 19 May 2019 08:37 (A review of Esteros (2016))

Does it often feel like every other gay movie is about two men falling in love and one of them having a fraught relationship to his sexuality and object of desire? I get it, self-repression is part of the queer experience, but it can get mildly depressing to watch movie after movie detailing this panic-stricken moment when one character has to choose between his authentic self or societal expectations. Enter Esteros, a movie all about that exact moment yet told with uncommon sensitivity and tactile sensuality.


We alternate back-and-forth in time, between the idyllic adolescence friendship between Matias and Jeronimo and their tension-filled reunion ten years later. We witness their youthful selves at the exact moment that sexuality begins to intrude upon their lives, and there’s something more happening between them than mere friendship. Flashforward ten years later and it’s clear neither one has entirely gotten over the absence of the other. While Matias has seemingly accepted a buttoned-up heterosexual life, Jeronimo has embraced a more bohemian and queerer lifestyle. Their attraction and chemistry are evident even in their awkward first moments.


We spend much time exploring why they parted, what incidents happened to drive them apart, and an airing of long simmering emotions popping off at random spurts. There’s a shorthand there that no one else can ever hope to replicate and understand, and I found myself rooting for them to make it work. Call me a romantic, but I hoped these two crazy kids would work it all out by the end.


It’s too Papu Curotto’s directorial achievement that one can see this going any number of ways, and Esteros manages to never fall into melodramatics or hysterics. Events unfold at a realistic and logical pace based upon the character’s personalities and histories. It works well as a quiet storm romance, a sensual drama, and offers a chance to bask in the beauty of the Argentinian wetlands of the title.


Here’s a tiny little movie with a big emotional punch and an uncommon sensitivity offered to its various characters and their plights. One of the great joys of the streaming age is the chance to discover these quiet movies that never got a chance beyond the festival circuit or a one-week run in an arthouse theater. Esteros may not reinvent its various cinematic tropes in a large way, but it deploys them consummate skill, intelligence, and emotional truth.

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Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party

Posted : 3 months ago on 19 May 2019 08:20 (A review of Henry Gamble's Birthday Party)

Stephen Cone’s queer films are well meaning if misguided. Here he looks to examine the hypocrisies of the evangelical sect, a fertile and ripe place, and do so in an empathetic and humane way, noble choice, but Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is trying to tackle way more than Cone’s abilities as a writer or a director are capable of handling. There are bits about racism, mental illness, adultery, eating disorders, homosexuality, and the policing of women’s bodies and sexuality. All of that in 87 minutes, and you best believe that none of it is given much depth or consideration.


It’s a very open-hearted film and characters that would be easy target practice under another filmmaker are given moments to feel like real people. There’s a humorous bit where one character is explaining that wider societal problems play a role in young women going into pornography and maybe we should be working to dissolve those barriers and problems. This is met with a rebuttal questioning whether that character has gone democrat on everyone. It lands better in action than it may in summary.


At least Cone offers several of his characters to step into their truth and obtain agency by the end, even if the journey somehow feels compromised or only half-formed. There’s the main character and his mother who both step into the murkier waters that they’ve only flirted with by the end, and his sister who seems to find the balance between her faith and prior choices. Cone sure is big-hearted and capable of working with his actors to develop real people on the screen, so let’s focus on the positive before I wrap this up. I think Ben Kenigsberg of the New York Times summarized it best when he said, “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party feels sincere but not accomplished, empathetic but not deep.”

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Tale of Tales

Posted : 3 months ago on 19 May 2019 07:40 (A review of Tale of Tales (2015))

For a while Tale of Tales plays out with the free-associative logic of a fairy tale and provides sequences that in an American film would lead to bombast with quiet emotional urgency. This is when the film is operating at its best, but then a certain thinness begins to undermine the film’s triptych of stories and their corresponding images. That is, the film runs out of gas long before the final credits are rolling.


The three tales told here are eventually revealed as being interwoven in intimate and unique ways, but the crosscutting between them feels arbitrary at best. At its worst, the stories intrude all over each other’s emotional rhythms and textures, and I wonder if this could be reedited to have the films work more in concert with each other. There are clear parallels in story beats or characters dropping in to work as a smoother connective tissue.


Eventually the blood splattering and bare breasts, the aggressive carnality and contrasting imagery begins to feel repetitive instead of how invigorating and unique it was in the opening scenes. After all, casting Vincent Cassel as a randy king that blasts through all of the maidens in his kingdom is a bit of type-casting begging for a reframing, but that never happens here. While Salma Hayek’s queen with baby-fever is one of the better, more realized creations in the film. Hayek’s fantastic in the role even if the eventual story beats squander her investment and misguided maternal instincts.


There’s still plenty to celebrate about Tale of Tales, especially its masterful first half, and it’s great to see a fairy-tale film that doesn’t want to wrap its fantastical elements around big CGI battles and frantic editing in the final act. There are several unique ideas about patriarchy, femininity and neurotic relationships between royals and their subjects to chew on, mainly the tale of two sisters obsessed with regaining their youth. The horror and sexuality of fairy tales is alive and well in Tale of Tales even if it can’t stick the landing.  

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A Promise

Posted : 3 months ago on 19 May 2019 07:40 (A review of A Promise)

You gotta love it when an adaptation of a period piece in a European country that is not England winds up getting a very English makeover. Or not. A Promise is very much a headscratcher in this regard. Here’s a story that explicitly takes place in Germany pre-WWI but is cast from top to bottom with British talent not even bothering with attempting an accent. It’s like when ancient Greece is uniformly white and populated by posh accents – something is curiously hilarious about it all.


Does this sound like nitpicking? Perhaps, but nothing much in A Promise works as it should, so my mind may have wondered a bit. You see, A Promise is basically a will they/won’t they romance wrapped up in fidgety, mannered indifference and dispassionate verbal exchanges that never sells its central conceit.


There’s the young buck (Richard Madden, handsome but bored) hired to tutor the young son of his older boss (Alan Rickman, doing his default seething) and gob smacked when he meets the boss’ younger wife (Rebecca Hall, the only lead finding the right balance in her performance). Attraction slow burns and is blown out by a variety of sources – the boss’ machinations, the outbreak of the Great War, a sense of propriety and honor. A Promise finds its title in the exchange of love and fidelity that the young buck and younger wife give each other as he’s shipped off away from Germany and eventually stranded with no lines of communication.


If you’re wondering if they’ll eventually wind up together, then you’ve clearly never seen a movie of this type before. There’s also some underdeveloped bits of social commentary and a general sense of turgid pacing that makes everything feel diluted and dull, frankly. The talent assembled for this is mighty, but it all is in service of a misguided vision that never quite squares where it wants to go or what it wants to be.

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Madame Bovary

Posted : 3 months ago on 19 May 2019 07:40 (A review of Madame Bovary)

There’s something about Gustav Flaubert’s towering literary achievement that seems nearly impossible to translate to cinematic language. Perhaps it’s the insular nature of the prose? The way that its critique is both ambiguous and acidic, especially towards its titular heroine, maybe more like anti-heroine, is something that’s difficult to capture under even the greatest translations.


This version of Madame Bovary is not one of the greatest translations. It’s not the worst, but it’s merely there existing. There’s no grand shock of Flaubert’s ending here, as the film opens with Emma Bovary’s death-rattle as she stumbles around the woods and eventually collapses. This Emma Bovary is envisioned as a woman placed in a stranglehold by the patriarchy and blown about by the various men that seduce then toss her aside. Not a bad choice for a new stylistic interpretation, but it doesn’t feel fully formed.


There’s plenty of somber scenes of Mia Wasikowska’s Emma staring blankly around her house or engaging in dispassionate love affairs that threaten to destroy her reputation and homelife, but that only goes so far to explicate the deeper truths that Susan Barthes’ direction is trying to unearth. I wasn’t convinced of Emma’s plight and the film’s frigidity and withholding made her appear more as a petulant brat than something struggling for agency and choice in an oppressive atmosphere.


It doesn’t help that Wasikowska’s two lovers feel grossly unsuited to period films, and there’s little to no chemistry generated between them. Ezra Miller is a fine actor, but he doesn’t look or feel right in this specific period as there’s something too modern about his whole being. Logan Marshall-Green is given little to do besides look beautiful and act like a dick. These two are supposed to be the grand love affairs and rejections that push Emma over the edge? Madame Bovary doesn’t generate the sensuality necessary to make us invest in these relationships. It winds up being a perfunctory Sunday matinee of a costume drama and nothing more when the ideas behind the adaption go frustratingly teased but never blossom.

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Posted : 3 months ago on 19 May 2019 07:40 (A review of Roma)

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a memory play and a quiet documentation of the sublime found in the banality of everyday life. I wouldn’t entirely call the ability of the film’s images to transform the mundane into the cinematic divine ‘magic realism,’ but I’m not sure what else to dub it. Cuarón’s camera is permanently seeking a way to alchemically transform something boring into something engrossing and beautiful.


Told entirely from the point-of-view of the domestic worker Cleo (Yalitza Apericio), Roma glimpses a year-in-the-life of this woman and the family she serves. Alternating between Spanish and Mixtec, Roma manages to humanize all of its primary characters, namely Cleo and her employer’s wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), putting our empathies and rooting interest in their relationship’s nuances and complications. These women lean on each other and Roma never judges either of them for their lifestyles and choices, however limited or dependent upon the men or more monied persons orbiting their lives.


Roma details these nuances and minute details through closeups of faces and visual storytelling. Long passages of the film are spent merely observing the day-to-day realities and tasks of its various characters with little to no dialogue. Some of these moments turn the grueling physical labor of the domestic workers into magical tableaus where the water used to clean dog shit transitions into a mirror that captures the planes flying overhead or tracks across a countryside that becomes an Eden-like place as it taps into a character’s nostalgia for home and childhood.


This was Cuarón’s passion project, and his one-man-band approach to the material marks it as his most personal and potentially autobiographical work to date. He wrote, directed, shot, and edited the entire thing, and his artistic mastery is utterly compelling and wide-ranging. The visuals he manages to capture explain so much of the dynamics at play within the material better than any verbal pyrotechnics ever could. He never tells us but shows through his slow burning poetry and shots that capture the friction between the characters or the larger situation that Cleo finds herself caught within.


It doesn’t hurt that he manages to get stunning work from his two actresses. They are Roma and Roma is them just as much as it is Cuarón’s baby. Marina de Tavira is an established actress in Mexico, so her stunning work comes as no shock beyond being a primary introduction to American audiences. Her work is subtle even when the tribulations could tip into melodrama, and she’s never more engaging then when she stumbles home drunk and calmly asserts to Cleo that women are inevitably alone in this world. Her delivery is laced with impotence and pent-up rage, with misdirected aggression and heartache.


I’m most curious about what waits in store for Yalitza Apericio as an actress going forward. Will she be one of those morning glory darlings or manage to craft a respectable career for herself? God, I hope she gets further opportunities because there’s something enthralling about merely observing her in front of the camera. Her work is a perfect example of the quiet ones being the ones you have to watch out for. Her birthing scene is extraordinary as we learn of the complications and tragedies at the same time she does, and her transition from pain to panic to emotional exhaustion is profoundly real. Her character’s dignity is written all over her mysterious smile and refusal to lie down in spite of a series of turbulent emotional experiences.


Roma’s quiet dignity and emotional tactility sucker punched me from the first gorgeous frame to the last. It slowly builds from one emotional crescendo to the next (god, that beach scene!) and it’s all an incredibly intimate affair. It’s a glimpse of an artist’s autobiography also functioning as self-critique as he examines his privileged childhood and wonders what the interior life of his family’s domestic workers was like. There’s no grand three-act structure here, instead Roma lulls you into its textures and movements through a slow burn. Your mileage may vary, but I was enthralled from the opening credits to the end.

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Posted : 4 months ago on 22 April 2019 08:28 (A review of BlacKkKlansman)

Where does one begin a discussion on a Spike Lee joint that draws immediate parallels between its recent history and our immediate present? I suppose you could start there, but BlacKkKlansman has so much going for it that it seems somehow the most obvious entry point. Here is a film that manages to balance its political messaging with comedy, its moments of high-tension with Lee’s imprimatur, and manages to make a commentary about our nation’s stagnant identity with grace and wit.


You really can’t make this shit up, as evidenced by the title card reading “some fo’ real fo’ real shit.” It makes perfect sense that Spike Lee would gravitate towards the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, a star is born here), a black cop that infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan. On paper that scans as insane enough to be true, no questions asked as no writer has so fervid an imagination as to dream up such a scenario.


This historical story, if 1979 can count as historical, not only entertains us with the sheer insanity of its truth, both as something that can be verified as happening but with its clear lack of artifice, but functions as a gauge for present-day racial tensions. As if we needed further reminding, America’s complicated relationships between racial and ethnic groups has largely stagnated more than we’re comfortable with. For all of the outward looking progress and symbols of hope and change, there was clearly an animosity and backlash festering away and waiting for something to come along and provide clearance for it to explode.


It is within this space that BlacKkKlansman operates best as a document of art responding to history as much as the present. Hell, this could easily be said of so much of Lee’s body of work. Think of how Bamboozled argued that maybe audiences still responded enthusiastically with uncomplicated and stereotypical portraits of black people’s interior lives, and then remember how Green Book just won Best Picture. Once more, Lee’s thorny portrait of an American landscape and identity at war with itself loses to the feel good movie that places its major black character as a supporting role and makes them function as a tool for the white character’s learning that racism is bad and maybe we’re more alike than we aren’t.


Then there’s the way in which Lee opens the film, with Alec Baldwin in a cameo delivering a monologue directly to the camera. Baldwin’s cameo, not dissimilar to his opening salvo in Glengarry Glen Ross, introduces us to the world of white angst that seers anyone unlike them as inherently inferior and deserving of violent retribution. It’s pure fear-mongering, and something of a stunt cast as Baldwin’s spent the better part of his time post-2016 election planning a rambling, divisive bigoted dotard every week on SNL. Lee’s choices are smart and piercing.


To go back to Bamboozled for a second – that was a film that received a tremendous amount of criticism for its use of historical cinematic tropes and images that left a lasting legacy of violence and oppression. Many thought his satirical intent was undermined by deploying these tropes and images, but Lee was making a great point. Images and symbols matter. It’s easy to see various groups as “the other” if all you know about them is happy slaves, mammies, and lazy simpletons.


Look at the KKK induction ceremony scene late in this film for proof of this point. After the proxy (Adam Driver, playing a Jewish man continually creating and destroying various identities) has completed his ceremonial joining by, in my opinion, desecrating the actual tenants of Christianity and their symbols in the Eucharist, they all convene to watch The Birth of a Nation. D. W. Griffith’s film is one that is a loaded subject – do you talk about it as a important historical document for all it accomplished on a technical level? Do you remove it from the canon for its aggressive racism and dangerous stereotypes, including blackface and images of sex crazed black men? Do you leave it and discuss as the controversial, thorny thing it is? There’s no right answer here, but it is important to remember that the Klan really does treat that cinematic text as a near-holy gospel as depicted here. (For the record, I refused to watch it after learning that last little tidbit.)


Lee knows that there’s no way to tell this story without drawing parallels with the present, so why even hide from the fact? We end the film with a montage of violence in Charlottesville and an upside down American flag that slowly drains out of color. His pessimistic view of race relations is earned as it does appear that we’re backsliding and everyone’s on the defensive instead of paying attention and listening. BlacKkKlansman doesn’t offer any balm for these scars the way that Green Book does, and it’s a superior work of art for it.

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Made in America

Posted : 4 months ago on 22 April 2019 08:28 (A review of Made in America)

She’s a black intellectual! He’s a scummy car salesman! Together, they unwittingly had a daughter through IVF! Will these whacky two work it out and come together as a modern family? Find out on Made in America!


Coming this fall to CBS!


Ok, not really, but Made in America does play like a variation of My Two Dads or Perfect Strangers loaded up with more, because more is more and there’s never too much of a good thing. Or something along those lines. Any which way you glance at it, Made in America is cheese of the highest order that’s imminently forgettable and a waste of the talents of Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson.


Ostensibly a romantic comedy, and also one of misunderstanding and improbable medical situations, Made in America certainly plays with pathos far more than it earns or is potentially comfortable with. Nia Long’s screen time boils down to her prettily staring off with tears staining her face in soft closeup. Ted Danson’s character is clearly flirting with alcoholism, and there’s a scene of him moodily pouring booze down the sink. If you’re wondering if there’s a scene where characters forlornly stare off into the rain, you bet your ass there is.


I mean, this is a movie that introduces us to Goldberg and her haphazard bicycling through town as a means to eventually stick in her an accident that leads to grand revelations in a hospital. It’s all so damn convoluted that it feels less like an organic plot than the machinations involved in crafty whacky scenarios in a sitcom. Hey look, there’s Will Smith doing his Fresh Prince of Bel Air shtick.


This isn’t a particularly good movie, but it’s enjoyable for its warmth and slightness. It’s an amiable way to spend nearly two hours, even if the conceit feels strained by that length. This is the kind of movie that lazy Saturday afternoons scrolling through cable, or I guess Netflix or Amazon Prime nowadays, were engineered for. It asks little of you and gives just enough in return.

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